Discussion with Rustom Barucha

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Rustom Barucha, eminent theater director and critic, visited the Manipal Center for Philosophy and Humanities on the 9th of January. He held an informal and exciting discussion with the students and faculty of the center, on the world of theater and performance. Selected extracts.

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“Too much of cultural studies has valorized the metropolis. We forget to look at the other places. Too much theorization has focused on the global city, on urban nomadism, etc. We should also look at what happens in terms of development in various locations in rural areas. Issues like gender and caste can only start to be properly discussed when we localize the situation. When we stop talking generally.”

Time and narration

“Time is one of the basic principles of theatre. The basic essentials of theatre are space, time, actors and spectators (in particular cases there can be no audience, or rather, an invisible audience). The dimensions of time are multiple in theatre. Theatre takes place first in time: the clock time of the beginning of a play, and of its end.”

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“What characterizes time in Indian performance is rhythm. Each character has a specific rhythm. There are emotionally strong moments that require an intensification of rhythm. Particular situations also have particular rhythms. It is true that we do not have conscious knowledge of these codes. The codes are less clear than in cinema, for instance. In Kerala, there is a convention known as Nirvahana. It is the ancestor of the flashback! And its dimensions are amazing. A character may enlarge the performance to several days to bring forth what happened earlier in the story! For instance, on the first night, Arjun presents himself, at the present time of narration. But the second night, he says: “so I am very happy… why am I so happy? I have to tell more…” and he goes backwards, further and further away, to explain his own past, and that of his father, etc. And at one point he returns to the first moment of narration.”

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“That is a crazy conception of time! In such cases, spectators have time to watch very long performances. A performance of 8 hours, think about it! In some forms of Japanese theatre, the time is so slow that the spectator does not even notice the movement of the actors… until the clapping sound, which makes them realize that the actor went from one side of the stage to the other.”

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“In certain types of theatre in Kerala there is a “cut” in time. A break. After the peak of “possession” of the actor, there is a sort of break for the watchers to go sleep. They return and the possessed actor is still there! And the play starts again. In other plays, spectators get lulled into sleep… until a marking moment at which point everyone wakes up, and this moment is electrifying.”

Non-verbal theatre

“In Europe, the adaptation of an anthropological account of an African tribe became quite controversial. The playwright had decided to make the actors babble. This made  the tribe look more primitive, as if they had no language. On the contrary, in India, there is a play in which only four particular sounds were repeated in hundreds of ways throughout the play. In this play, there is a mother bird whose children get stolen by a cat. At one point, the cat sets the kids against their mother. They go to stone her, but at that time they scream the only sentence of the play: “Mother and motherland are greater than heaven.” This sentence, said in the classical language, Sanskrit, had a very profound political sense, and even more because it was the only sentence from an actual language of the whole play.”

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The importance of traditional performance in India

“The needs of communities continue to be satisfied through these performances. For instance, the personification of Kali in certain areas serves as a ritual: the young parents of the area bring their newborn for Kali to take into her arms for a few seconds. Religious needs, ritual needs, and even forms of therapy. Many of the performances play a therapeutic role. But plays are also sometimes very sexist, exclusionary at some levels, while very inclusive in many other ways.”

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“Aristotle’s Epics and the Natya Shastra, that is, a series of lecture notes and a theatre manual, do match on almost all elements. But the main difference between European and Indian theatre, is that there is no proof of actual performance of Greek tragedy in Greece. In India, the traces of ancient traditions must necessarily imply a practice: it is dance, it is play. These are undeniable proofs of performance.”

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Using traditional concepts for modern political experiences

“Political activism in India has no aesthetics. Activists often don’t realize that they also need aesthetics to form the complete human. According to a friend of mine, Rasa could be seen as the energy behind social struggle. Rasa has transformative powers. A debatable but exciting proposition! But this is not discussed, because those who know Rasa and the actors of social transformation simply don’t talk to each other! We should, we need to relate aesthetics to politics. This is not helped by the facts that many of the pandits are not very open to share their knowledge on notions such as Rasa.”

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“Theatre does not die at the end of the play. It survives in many ways: in memories, in talks about it… and more importantly, when the performance is very marking, it simply remains as the reason, the source of a major change in the life of the spectators.”

“In Brazil, a friend of mine, a great choreographer, gives classes on “movements” to people who are not actors or professional dancers. He believes that being able to maintain, to hold, to inhabit the body is what matters the most in order to be a good citizen! Practicing simple movements can be transformative.”

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“When activists use art, there is another risk: instrumentalizing art.”

“Aesthetics comes with hard labor. To be a good dancer, a good performer requires labor. What kind of labor? Imaginative labor, creative labor. The same kind of labor that goes into framing a question.”

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